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Hearty food choices for football watching

Next time you decide watch some football serve up some Fri pie. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Next time you decide to watch some football, serve up some Frito pie. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:03AM

Love it or hate it, football season is here, in all its lazy Sunday glory. Though vegging out in front of the TV may not be your thing, one part of the American pastime has all-but-universal appeal: the food. That, and the excuse to enjoy it in plenty.

This year, rather than graze your way through boring, gut-busting fried fare, give game day grub a twist. By fashioning a serious — yet fuss-free — spread for football gatherings, food-enthused guests will thank you. And chip-dippers? They’ll appreciate the shake-up, too.

Although it may seem counterintuitive Tru Executive Chef and Partner Anthony Martin says the first place to start is to cut yourself slack. That’s right — chill out.

“Don’t feel like everything has to be made from scratch,” he urges. “Try picking up a few items, and put your own touches on them.”

Take plain, old potato salad from your neighborhood grocery store, and add a little cayenne pepper or chopped parsley, Martin suggests.

“It saves you time, but you still have a great dish,” he says.

Besides, it gives you leeway to focus on your main preparation. Jared Van Camp, executive chef at Old Town Social, says that’s when creativity is king.

“Instead of the classic buffalo wings, experiment with different techniques,” he says. “Try smoking them instead of frying them. Or, use non-traditional marinades rather than the same, traditional flavor.”

Chili is another hot ticket item. But there’s no reason it should be ho-hum. Van Camp makes chunky, bean-free brisket chili, which he uses to top hot dogs.

Naturally, planning what to prepare is important if you want things to run smoothly. To that end, remember that quality counts.

“Shop for fresh ingredients — you will taste the difference,” promises Van Camp. “Take stuffed jalapeños [poppers] as an example. Instead of buying frozen ones, make the stuffing and purchase fresh jalapeños from your local market.”

Sound daunting? It doesn’t have to be.

At Markethouse in the Gold Coast, the hard part is done for you. Executive Chef Scott Walton offers a made-to-order, carryout sausage, bacon, pate and condiment program. Orders placed 48 hours in advance yield the likes of smoky lamb merguez, lobster sausage and fennel-stippled, hot or mild Italian. But the nutmeg-scented, veal and pork brats are really not to be missed, especially when Walton’s apple cider mustard is slathered on top. (It’s $8 a pop, though the recipe is included here.) You can also score duck, pork belly or lamb bacon; chicken liver mousse and design-your-own encased meats for $6-$7 per pound, with a five-pound minimum.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of making the same thing over and over again, but you don’t have to,” Walton, an avid fan and longtime football player, admits. “Sausages are great because there are so many ways to prepare them. They never get dull. Plus, you can grill them off early and have them at room temperature, ready to slap on a bun.”

Beyond that, Walton favors slow-cooked dishes, albeit ones he can prepare the night before. “Braised shoulder and shank meat work well,” he says.

Walton often employs a slow cooker to get the job done. “In the past, I’ve made braised tongue, which I sliced for sandwiches,” he says, adding osso bucco is another game-worthy preparation.

Over at The Southern in Wicker Park, game day food gets another tweak on a Saturday-only tailgating menu with house-ground pimiento cheeseburgers that are built from chuck and pork fat. Executive chef Cary Taylor also dishes up Frito pie, laced with fried chiles and finished with smoked Cheddar and raw onions.

“I think in terms of spice and salt,” Taylor says. “These flavors get people drinking and having a good time.”

Another suggestion for a successful spread: pick a theme and stick to it. “It cuts down on work when you narrow the focus,” he says.

To that end, Steve LaHaie, a partner at Shaw’s Crab House, bases menus around whatever team is playing the Bears.“I like to serve food from the city that the opposing team comes from, and mix it in with Chicago food,” he says. “For example, jambalaya is a great idea when they play the Saints.”

Martin adds that making food options “eater-friendly” helps keep guests “in the game.”

That’s why he often prepares wraps and sandwiches, rather than lay them out in DIY fashion.

“Try hollowing out dinner rolls and baking them until they’re crispy,” he suggests. “Then, fill them with your favorite chili. This will allow fans to grab a roll and get back to the action rather than getting a bowl, serving the chili and carrying multiple plates.”

But because guests’ tastes vary, LaHaie says it’s important to have a veggie and meat option on offer. “You want a bit of something for everyone,” he says.

But don’t go all over-the-top.

“After all, people are going to pick and eat all day long,” Walton predicts. “You want to serve something that will stand up.

Jennifer Olvera is a local free-lance writer.

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